New Report Analyzes the Effect of Top Two in Washington State

by Drew Spencer // Published October 25, 2012


The Top Two primary system has drawn increasing attention as a way to reform our elections. Instead of conducting ordinary partisan primaries, Top Two jurisdictions run an open preliminary in which all candidates run against each other irrespective of party label. Then, the two candidates who receive the most votes run against each other again in the general election. For many years, Louisiana was the only state using a form of the system for both state and federal elections. Washington State started using the system in 2008. California implemented it in 2012, and Arizona voters may adopt it in a November 2012 ballot measure.

In a new report, FairVote takes a "just the facts" approach to how Top Two has operated in Washington State since 2008. Looking only at party labels and vote totals, it analyzes the effect of Top Two on voter choice in both rounds of the election, the role that split votes and so-called "spoiler" candidates have in the preliminary round, and what can be gleaned from the difference in turnout and vote totals between the preliminary and general elections. Although it focuses on state legislative races - to ensure that comparisons are apples-to-apples to the greatest extent possible - a last section considers the very different impact the system appears to have in higher profile federal and state executive races.

The report concludes that Top Two largely does not accomplish its goal of encouraging the election of moderates in Washington State. Over three election cycles, almost three quarters of preliminary races had no competition at all with only one or two candidates in the preliminary. Where the preliminary includes a broader field of candidates, voters tend to treat the system essentially just like a partisan primary; over 86% of general election races were either uncontested or involved only a Democrat running against a Republican, and our data shows that in most such races, the Democrat receives very nearly the same percent of the vote as the combined votes of Democrats in the Preliminary, and the same is true for Republicans. In no race did an Independent participate in the general election if both a Democrat and Republican ran.

Over three cycles, there have been 29 "intraparty" races - in which a Republican runs against another Republican or a Democrat runs against another Democrat in the general election - but every single intraparty race resulted in the election of the candidate who received the most votes in the preliminary, suggesting a lack of the sort of crossover voting that would result in the election of moderate candidates. Further, Top Two is plagued with problems of vote splitting, with more than half of those preliminaries with four or more contenders resulting in candidates splitting the vote such that it cannot be determined if the most popular candidate even advanced to the general election. Finally, although we only have election cycles since 2008 to work with, the evidence so far does not suggest any trends, either improving or getting worse, as Washington voters continue to use the system. The numbers are largely consistent across cycles.

To be clear, these issues occur in partisan primaries as well. As recommended in a prior policy paper, FairVote recommends that Top Two should be adjusted with a few simple proposals to increase voter choice and candidate competition while minimizing the possibility of vote splitting.